Netflix’s newest show steeped in controversy
The Santa Clara
April 27, 2017
Suicide is never talked about. Our society treats it like a secret shame and pop culture fears to discuss it in any sort of substantial way. Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” is the rare piece of media that dares to breach the topic. But in its endeavors, does it potentially do more harm than good?
Based on the novel of the same name by Jay Asher, the plot follows Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) as he discovers through a series of cassette tapes the reasons why Hannah Baker decided to commit suicide. The show has been reigning supreme on media sites like Twitter, with many reporting that it’s the most tweeted about show of 2017.
However, behind the Buzzfeed fluff pieces touting the stars’ shippable friendships, a controversy has been brewing over whether or not the show glorifies suicide. Parents and schools administrators have been particularly concerned about the impact it can have on its target audience—young adults between the ages of 15 and 20.
The outrage over the new Netflix series, which premiered in late March, might at first seem like a few sensitive souls overreacting. And it does sound initially ridiculous, with various school districts across the country sending out emails, warning parents not to let their children view the show. But the controversy is not unfounded.
The graphic nature of its content is the number one reason why so many are having trouble with “13 Reasons Why.” Throughout its 13 episode run, there are multiple graphic depictions of sexual assault and Hannah’s suicide. One of the show’s writers, Nic Sheff, has defended the decision to explicitly portray these incidents.
“It seemed to me the perfect opportunity to show what an actual suicide really looks like—to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off, and to make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse,” Sheff said in a Vanity Fair interview on April 19. “It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all.”
Although, the team’s intentions may be in the right place, the execution is lacking. Multiple psychologist have said that violent, prolonged portrayals of suicide actually have the opposite effect. It leaves young adult viewers vulnerable to “suicide contagion,” a real phenomenon where an increase in suicides occurs after exposure to the suicidal behavior of others.
Furthermore, it’s extremely telling that the writers decided to change Hannah’s original method of suicide in the book—pill overdose— to something more visual, like wristcutting. If the writers wanted to be “honest” about suicide, then they wouldn’t need to make it more cinematic. Why else change the suicide method, if not for that reason?
Still, fans of the show defend its candidness because of the themes of respect and empathy. The whole point of Clay’s journey is to force audiences to confront how they treat others and recognize human kindness goes a long way. Defenders also say the show is doing a lot to bring issues of suicide, bullying and mental health to the forefront.
However, the way “13 Reasons Why” talks about these issues leaves a lot to be desired. Hannah’s suicide acting as the catalyst of the show’s events reduces an intimate and extreme tragedy to a plot device. Her “reasons” for committing suicide make it seem like suicide is 100 percent explainable, as if it’s caused by something and isn’t just a dead end some reach.
More troubling still, is how Hannah’s suicide essentially boils down to a revenge fantasy, rather than a deep exploration of mental health issues. In this way, the story becomes one of a scorned teenager methodically planning out the best way to hurt everyone who wronged her. She might as well be saying, “When I’m dead, they’ll see. They’ll all see!”
This is just one interpretation, sure, but it’s one with dangerous ramifications even professionals are worried about. We can’t sweep this issues under the rug just because it’s entertainment. If anything, the fact that it’s been making an impact on culture should mean we hold it to a higher standard.
Some audiences may be able to handle the themes and content of the show, just as others may not. As with any piece of entertainment, it’s not for everyone and it doesn’t have to be. But we cannot gloss over or dismiss the potential harm it may trigger in vulnerable viewers.
Parents should be talking to their children about it, and Netflix should consider listing potential triggers along with the show descriptions. Viewers have a right to know exactly what they’re getting into, spoilers be damned, so that they can make an informed decision.
It’s not censorship; it’s about choice. Boycotting a show for mental health reasons is perfectly valid. It’s the only reason that matters.
Contact Perla Luna at pluna@scu. edu or call (408) 554-4852.